Powering Down From the Bottom Up: Greener Client Computing

min read

Key Takeaways

  • All users can contribute to green computing and reducing their campus’s carbon footprint through a bottom-up approach.
  • Some of the most effective green computing strategies are the least expensive, such as power management, raising user awareness, and switching to energy-efficient computers as part of the standard replacement cycle.
  • A focus on client computing yielded the greatest savings at the University of Maine at Farmington.
  • Success in reducing the carbon footprint at UMF led to a first-place award in the Power Down for the Planet contest.

A decade ago, people wanting to practice “green computing” recycled their printer paper, turned their personal desktop systems off from time to time, and tried their best to donate old equipment to a nonprofit instead of throwing it away. Since then, a few things have changed:

  • First was the realization that yesterday’s small steps don’t do enough to address the environmental problems. Computers are plentiful and power-hungry, and their collective environmental impact demands solid conservation strategies.
  • Second was the discovery of the financial benefits of energy-efficient computing. With the right changes, IT departments on campus can actually save money, or at least cover the costs of more responsible computer usage.
  • Third, as a result of the other two changes, green computing is now a hot topic, and a bewildering array of options awaits: commercial power management software, carbon footprint calculators, various flavors of energy-efficient computers, server virtualization, eco-friendly equipment disposal, and an Internet rife with advice.

In fact, there are so many ideas out there, it’s hard to know where to focus IT department or campus efforts. A campus IT department can shave a few watts off just about any IT process — the real trick is planning and prioritizing to accomplish the most with the staff and budget available. Spending money isn’t the only option, and in some cases, it isn’t even the best option. Some of the most effective strategies are actually the least expensive.

IT staff often start looking for green opportunities in the back office, particularly in costly-to-upgrade areas like data centers. On campus, though, most computers are out in the field. Even considering the extra power and cooling needs of server rooms, client technology still consumes 3.5 times as much total resources.1 For a more complete solution, IT departments clearly need to look beyond the walls of central IT.

Over the past couple of years, the University of Maine at Farmington (UMF) has significantly reduced the carbon footprint of computers on campus. Though we’ve taken green steps in the back room — server consolidation, virtualization, print management — most of our gains have resulted from new approaches to client computing. We’ve focused primarily on power management and raising user awareness, while also committing to purchase more energy-efficient end-user computers.

Figure 1 shows how we’ve cut electricity consumption in our computer center almost in half through greener practices like server virtualization (2006–07), air-conditioning improvements in the data center and computer labs (2007–08), better power management on the building’s 120–130 computers (2008–09), and replacing computers in one classroom lab each year with newer, more efficient models (2006–2009).

Figure 1. UMF Computer Center Electricity Usage

The results have been noticeable in our electric bills, as well as in the increased awareness of green computing on campus. We also recently won the first Power Down for the Planet contest, which challenged colleges and universities nationwide to reduce energy consumption by enabling power management and purchasing Energy Star–qualified computers. While IT guided these accomplishments, the methods weren’t entirely technical. We invested equally in publicity and campus-wide collaboration, with the idea that all users can contribute to green computing. We’ve found success with this bottom-up approach, and we believe it can benefit other organizations as well.

The Smallest Step to the Biggest Savings

If you need a good place to start, consider this simple math problem. An average computer consumes over $100 worth of electricity per year. By enabling the power management features built into every modern operating system, you can cut that amount in half or better without affecting productivity.2 Multiply the number of computers on your campus by the $50 or more in savings, and you’ll no doubt end up at an amount well into the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. You could save this amount every year, along with about 500 pounds of CO2 emissions per computer, just by focusing on this single strategy.3 One recent industry report on power management concluded, “Few problems match an impact so large with a solution so simple.”4 Or, as U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently quipped, “Energy efficiency isn’t just low-hanging fruit; it’s fruit lying on the ground.”5

This simple idea is so powerful that it has become the core of major awareness campaigns by groups like the Climate Savers Computing Initiative, a nonprofit coalition of major tech companies and universities, as well as Energy Star, a U.S. government program that promotes more efficient practices and products of all types. As the Climate Savers website points out, although nearly every computer has power management available, about 90 percent of users don’t use it.6 To help reverse this trend, Climate Savers Computing sponsored the nationwide Power Down for the Planet contest, highlighting the key role that higher education can play.

Though exact power recommendations vary, a middle ground promoted by Climate Savers Computing and Energy Star is to set each computer’s monitor and hard drives to go to sleep after 15 minutes of inactivity and to have the computer switch to low-power standby after 30 minutes. The shorter the times, the greater the savings, and shutting the computer off when possible is best, since standby still requires some power. The challenge, of course, is getting users to that point.

Deploying efficient power management settings on computers across campus requires a mix of tactics. Most centrally managed networks already offer ways to change settings on employee computers, such as through network login scripts, domain policies, and hard-drive imaging. Several commercial power management products have also emerged in recent years, as the financial benefits of green computing have increased demand for targeted solutions, and there are even a handful of free tools available online. (See “Technical Tips” for an overview of the options. For additional ideas and details, explore the resources on the Energy Star website.)

Even a technically sound deployment plan might not suffice, however. Mandating one-size-fits-all sleep settings could interfere with unattended tasks, for example, such as video rendering or research number-crunching. Also, some machines consuming campus power might not be subject to centralized network policies or login scripts, perhaps because they’re managed independently by a particular department. Worse, IT staff usually have little control over personally owned student computers, which significantly outnumber staff computers and are more likely to be powered on at all hours.

There are a few ways to address these cases. First, you could steer users to power management software with a front-end that offers multiple configuration options, like the EZ Wizard tool, available for free download on the Energy Star website. You should also provide clear, concise instructions showing users how to change the settings themselves. One source for this is the Climate Savers Computing website, which provides screenshots and explanations for every major operating system. You could even offer to change the settings for any users who bring their computers to the help desk. Chances are, few will take you up on it, especially once you’ve given them easy instructions, but it shows that you’re committed to working with users.

While the most direct route to change power settings is through the Windows Control Panel or OSX System Preferences, some users might appreciate more user-friendly utilities like Energy Star’s EZ Wizard. Figure 2 shows a screenshot of the program.

Figure 2. Energy Star EZ Wizard Screenshot

Every campus has its own network layout and staff strengths, making it hard to recommend specific strategies to spread power management settings. The best approach is to explore the options, build up a bag of tricks, and pick the strategies that will be most effective in your organization. Check out “Technical Tips” for some ideas and links to get started.

Despite our successes with power management at UMF, we haven’t mandated specific settings. Initial monitoring indicated that many staff already used power management, and few left computers on after business hours. On that front, we’ve relied more on raising awareness and providing assistance. That allowed us to devote more attention to bigger energy culprits like lab computers, which were often left on when not in use, even overnight and on weekends. Applying aggressive power management settings there provided immediate, noticeable results. We were also able to set initial power management settings on some student computers — we sell optional laptops with software images that we maintain — and we’re bundling a “Click here to change your power settings” opt-in with the antivirus installer we require for all other student computers.

Another strategy that has helped reduce power consumption on campus is buying more efficient computers. To some extent, just replacing retired equipment has helped, as nearly every new computer has an LCD monitor instead of an older, less efficient CRT. In recent years, we’ve also shifted most faculty and some staff from desktops to laptops, which use 50–80 percent less power.7

The most effective purchasing change, however, has been buying Energy Star–compliant equipment. Such computers are only nominally more expensive — Climate Savers Computing estimates the difference at less than $30 per computer, declining toward zero as efficient models become more pervasive8 — and the extra cost is recouped through lower electricity bills. For example, Energy Star estimates that an average certified desktop computer saves $15 per year.9 As a bonus, many Energy Star computers are also certified by EPEAT, a broader environmental standard that requires lower levels of toxic materials, longer product life spans, and more ecologically sound end-of-life recycling. Both the Energy Star and EPEAT websites provide databases of computer makes and models that meet their respective criteria.

Shopping with these guidelines in mind will feed into your power management plan in other ways as well. The most recent Energy Star specifications require computers to ship with power save already enabled and set to put the monitor to sleep after 15 minutes of inactivity and the computer to sleep after 30 minutes. Energy Star also limits how much power the computer can draw in sleep or standby modes, and it requires computers to have Wake-on-LAN capability, so enterprises can shut down computers when not in use yet still wake them to install system updates after hours.

It Takes More Than Technology

Once you’ve pursued the technical aspects of conservation, bought more efficient computers, and made power management information available, you might assume that you’ve done what you can. But the real weight of an energy plan is the nontechnical ways you implement and promote those strategies. UMF’s energy achievements, particularly our win in the Power Down for the Planet contest, owe as much to marketing and teamwork as they do to computer management.

Though the usual publicity channels — flyers, posters, campus websites, the campus newspaper, e-mail lists, Facebook — tend to be crowded with information, they’re still a good place to start. At a minimum, you need to push the green computing message there, alongside campus concerts and apartment rentals. Then brainstorm ways to add to that base. For example:

  • Place informational kiosks in high-traffic areas.
  • Hold random gift certificate drawings among users who enable power management.
  • Run an efficiency competition between departments or residence halls.
  • Host a green computing fair with live music and free popcorn.

The goal is to reinforce the same message in several places, since some users will need to see it a few times before they really pay attention.

UMF posted dozens of Power Down flyers in sizes ranging from 8 ½ × 11 inches to 3 × 4 feet. The basic design template was provided by the Power Down contest organizers, and we altered it and added our own text in Photoshop (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. UMF Power Down for the Planet Promotional Poster

The most effective methods will obviously vary by campus. We’ve mixed traditional promotions with old-fashioned word-of-mouth. IT staff drafted a best practices plan, relayed the suggestions to faculty and staff through official e-mail lists, and then followed up with specific groups or individuals who could help further. One of our most important collaborations was with the student and staff environmental group, the Sustainable Campus Coalition. Their students created (and invited their many friends to) our Power Down page on Facebook, and they staffed an informational table near the door to the dining hall at lunch time. The faculty in the group discussed the contest with their classes.

The underlying theme of a successful green computing campaign is campus-wide cooperation. Though central IT manages the computers, everyone uses them, and everyone has something to contribute. Some departments make particularly good partners: Student Life is probably better connected to resident students than IT, facilities staff may have a better view of overall energy use on campus, and the administration can back up computing suggestions with official policy. In larger schools, where IT might be decentralized across departments, these alliances are even more essential. Finally, no team is complete without students, since they have a far better perspective on how to reach students and what message will be most effective. Involving other groups and reaching out as a coalition transforms green computing into a shared mission for the greater good, rather than just one more arbitrary IT demand.

Once you’ve opened up the lines of communication, it’s time to hone your message. You could throw out dozens of ideas, all of them good for your carbon footprint, but narrowing the list down to the most beneficial suggestions works better. Users are more likely to remember and respond if the message is short, clear, and doesn’t look like it will create a lot of work for them. We trimmed our list down to three main points:

  • Enable power management.
  • Turn off equipment if you’re leaving it for more than an hour.
  • Print responsibly (a catch-all recommendation to use cheaper network printers rather than personal printers, enable duplex printing, and not print electronic documents unless needed).

We’ve promoted power management the most, but now that users have acted on that idea, we plan to focus on the others and gradually introduce new suggestions.

Since times are tough for both the economy and the environment, touting the benefits of green computing can make the message more persuasive. The web has an endless stream of statistics about collective impact to reinforce your arguments. For example, did you know that enabling power management on 1,000 computers saves $50,000 and prevents nearly 300 tons of CO2 emissions, which is the equivalent of taking 600 cars off the road for a year?10 Another way to demonstrate the impact of green computing is by suggesting (or providing, if you have the means to loan equipment) household watt meters. Users simply plug the meter into an AC outlet, plug a computer or other device into the meter, and can see exactly how much power they’re consuming and what it costs.11

It also pays to understand — and counter — the misinformation that prevents users from powering down. For example, nearly half believe that their IT department wants them to leave computers on all the time. While it’s true that some shops might have made this request to enable late-night maintenance, the percentage is likely less than half, and the policy is archaic, since technologies like Wake-on-LAN allow computers to receive off-hours updates even when turned off. Users also forget to power down, think it isn’t important, or falsely believe their computer is already set to go into sleep mode — all of which you can counter with increased awareness.12 Another persistent myth worth debunking: many believe that screen savers save energy, when in fact they keep the computer and monitor active, can prevent them from going into sleep mode, and draw the same amount of power (or more, for graphic-intensive screensavers) as when the computer is in use.13

Finally, it’s worth explaining what IT is doing internally to green its operations. Convincing users to change their own habits is still the primary goal, but providing an overview of improvements in the data center shows that IT is working hard on other fronts as well, rather than just demanding sacrifice from everyone else. Because it’s not as important as preaching power management, we’ve kept our internal accomplishments out of most end-user communications. Instead, we list them on our department’s website, alongside the power management instructions, at a URL we include in our publicity.

Collateral Benefits

When all of these forces align — the technical tools, the marketing, the sense of community — the end result is greater than the sum of its parts. Some users will get the direct message, change their power settings, and move on. Others will change their computers and then think about the overall message. They might realize that they also leave the lights on more than they need to, or that they can save on electricity if their next refrigerator is more efficient. When you reach students, the ripples extend even further, since the people we educate today will carry these ideas into their workplaces and homes later.

Anything we as IT can do, we should also encourage users to do: monitor consumption, reduce usage, buy Energy Star–compliant computers. Yes, we should continue to streamline data centers, but promoting more efficient client computing pays off on more levels. Most users won’t be able to spread the gospel of server virtualization, but they can appreciate the money and energy savings of power management. Then, as more people understand and discuss how computer usage relates to environmental concerns, the message becomes contagious.

That’s not to say an average user will run down the street shouting enthusiastically about sleep settings, but as more people become aware, the overall mindset changes. Eventually, people just start to expect their computers to shut off in 15 minutes, and it seems strange when they don’t. As an analogy, 30 years ago people smoked just about anywhere — in restaurants, at work, on the bus. Then we realized it wasn’t good for us, and we started limiting where people could smoke. Now smokers are mostly relegated to a few dark corners, where they’re still eyed suspiciously by nonsmokers. Regardless of your views on smoking bans, can you imagine someone walking into your office now and lighting a cigarette? The culture has changed, and we’re better off for it, though 30 years ago that change might have been hard to imagine.

The rise of green IT might not reverse climate change and save the world, but it can help. Even the small suggestions, if users latch onto them, are ultimately more effective than the initial savings they create. The ideas feed each other, creating an overall awareness that spills into other areas, until eventually conservation becomes so instinctive that we don’t even think about it. Because everyone uses computers, and there are so many simple ways to use them more efficiently, they offer a unique opportunity to not only help our own bottom lines but to lead the way on an important social issue. After all, green IT isn’t just about changing computers, it’s about changing computer users as well.

  1. The Climate Group, “SMART 2020: Enabling the Low Carbon Economy in the Information Age,” p. 18.
  2. Energy Star, “General Technical Overview of Power Management.” Savings range from $25–$75 per computer annually (more for desktops and CRT monitors, less for laptops and LCDs), and potentially another $5–$25 per year in reduced cooling costs (variable by climate), since computers generate heat that increases demands on air conditioning.
  3. Energy Star, “Join the ENERGY STAR Low Carbon IT Campaign.” It’s worth noting that this, like any statistic connected to power management savings, is a best estimate. Because there are so many variables — the type of computer, its age, how many hours it’s used each day, and so on — actual savings could be higher or lower.
  4. Alliance to Save Energy and 1E, “PC Energy Report 2007: United States,” p. 1.
  5. U.S. Department of Energy, “Obama Administration Launches New Energy Efficiency Efforts,” June 29, 2009.
  6. Climate Savers Computing, “Climate Savers Computing Initiative White Paper,” July 22, 2008, p. 2.
  7. EU Energy Star, “Desktop vs. Laptop.”
  8. Climate Savers Computing, “Climate Savers Computing Initiative White Paper,” p. 5.
  9. Energy Star, “Product Purchasing and Computer Power Management for Federal Agencies.”
  10. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator.”
  11. The University of Maine at Farmington has extensively used and loaned out Kill-a-Watt meters, which are also available for loan through some local public libraries.
  12. Alliance to Save Energy and 1E, “PC Energy Report 2007: United States,” p. 5.
  13. Energy Star, “Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).”